Tuesday, December 6, 2016

One Step Away

Temptations take many forms. Some are quite overt, as in viewing people as objects to satisfy our pleasures instead of as children of God, the sin of lust. Or, being so jealous of others and whatever they have, that we wish they would lose their material and/or spiritual gifts, the sin of envy. There is also wrath, flying into an uncontrolled rage to the extent of wishing or imposing physical harm on someone else.

Continue reading

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Book Review: One Minute Aquinas

About a year or so ago, I became interested in understanding the writings of Thomas Aquinas. I saw that his seminal work Summa Theologica is a 26-volume set which I chose not to purchase. Instead I bought Shorter Summa. I started reading it maybe three or four times, each time getting a little farther, but soon becoming overwhelmed by the depth of St. Thomas's thoughts.

In one of his Word On Fire podcasts, Bishop Robert Barron discusses Thomas Aquinas. Bishop Barron explained the layout of the Summa Theologica, stating that it was composed of written answers to questions that St. Thomas had received in the many question and answer groups in which he participated. The first part of the Summa deals with Sacred Doctrine and God; the second part is concerned with man, sin and grace; the third part with Jesus's Incarnation and life, and the sacraments. The show notes page for Bishop Barron's podcast also contains links to several books that he recommended to assist in understanding the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas. I have not yet read any of those books; however, I have read The One-Minute Aquinas, a book that I received as a present.

The One-Minute Aquinas (Kevin Vost, PsyD, Sophia Institute Press) presents an overview and a simplification of the Summa Theologica. Like the Summa, it is broken down into three parts: God, man, and Jesus Christ. However, it it presented in a different order: man is presented first, then God, and finally Jesus Christ. Dr. Vost states early in the book that read the Summa in the order in his book, not the original order of the Summa. In the author's opinion, this order makes for an easier understanding of this great work.

Each section begins with a theme addressed in the Summa, followed by a listing of the original sections in the Summma where the questions which generated the theme were discussed. Each of these mini-chapters, as it were, are short, generally about three pages (hence the name 'one-minute'). The author distills and summarizes Saint Thomas responses, and discusses interpretations of the response to clarify what was being said. Breaking the Summa into these shorter bites allows one to read one or a few in a sitting, then contemplate their meaning.

As an example, the first question is 'What Do We All Want? Happiness'. Here, St. Thomas has explained that we all want happiness, and that there are two kinds of happiness: imperfect happiness here on earth, and perfect happiness consisting of the beatific vision of God in heaven. This part of the book then continues to discuss the soul and its eleven passions, virtue, vice and sin, and grace.

The second part of The One-Minute Aquinas discusses God. The first question in this second part describes what St. Thomas wrote as to how we should think about God. The book proceeds to clarify that God exists, what God is and is not, and the Blessed Trinity. The final part is about 'Who Is Christ?'. It explains why God became man, Christs' life and what made it perfect, and the sacraments.

Scattered throughout the book are 'Dumb Ox' boxes. St. Thomas was a large man, with a quiet demeanor. This caused the other students in the University of Paris to call him the 'dumb ox' from Sicily. The 'Dumb Ox' boxes are St. Thomas's answers to questions that you may have had regarding life, such as 'Is It A Sin To Love Wine?' (Dumb Ox Box #2).

I found the book to be a great resource. I read it twice, in an effort to better understand Saint Thomas's viewpoint. The One-Minute Aquinas has given me the background to be more confident about reading and understanding The Shorter Summa. From there, I may even tackle the Summa Theologia.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Behold! The Lamb Of God!

I have attended Mass in probably 25 to 30 different Catholic churches over the past 35 years, including the Basilica in Rome when the Pope celebrated Mass. The churches have been in several different countries, as well as across the US. I've heard Mass in Spanish, Italian, the Queen's English and, of course, American English. There have been probably 60 different celebrants, with voices that ranged from almost inaudible to booming movie-themed god-like.

Why am I telling you this? Because among all of these celebrants, there is only one that really vocally impressed on me the fact that Jesus Christ is present in the host. What did he do? you ask. Here it is:

When most celebrants of the Mass hold up the host just before Communion, they say "Behold the Lamb of God" in a manner much as they have spoken the rest of the Mass. It is a conversational sentence. It sounds like a standard prayer. However, when this one particular priest (and I'm sorry I don't even remember his name) held up the host, he proclaimed (not said) "BEHOLD!! (pause) THE LAMB OF GOD!" (pause). Take a minute and envision how he said those words. 
The way that he proclaimed the words drew everyone's attention to the altar, whether they were previously paying attention or not. I was half expecting a light to shine down on the host from heaven. It was as if he was a court crier, announcing the entrance of the king – and he was, the King of kings, the Lord of lords. He was declaring, in no uncertain terms, that Jesus Christ was present in the host.

As I reflected on the way he spoke, no declared, those words, I thought that, in some ways, it’s too bad that all celebrants don’t use that type of emphasis on those words. Many of us, occasionally or frequently, attend Mass but don’t attend to Mass. We sit in the pews, absently reciting the prayers, half-listening to the homilies. We forget that we are celebrating Mass. Yes, it is a celebration, not just a requirement to be met or a box to be checked weekly. We don’t enter in to the full meaning of this great celebration: a time to reflect on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Yes, sometimes we have to be shaken out of our stupors and the distractions and problems of our everyday lives. Calling our attention to the fact that The Lamb Of God, Jesus Christ, is present during Mass may just help us to remember the truth.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Book Review: Encountering The Manuscripts

I never gave much thought as to how the New Testament came to be written. I had assumed that someone carefully compiled the various writings sometime in the late 1st century, and that an intact New Testament existed from that time. That being said, I was frequently confused by footnotes in my study Bible such as “Not found in most reliable manuscripts” or “scribal addition”. What did these footnotes mean in relation to the Bible? These questions and more were answered by the book “Encountering The Manuscripts” by Philip Comfort.

This book is a combination of biblical history and interpretation, and the study of the evaluation of the text of the various manuscripts in an attempt to discern the original wording of the Greek New Testament. It is a fact-based book, packed with information. I personally read this on a Kindle, which I found to be somewhat difficult due to the many pictures of portions of Greek manuscripts which are included as education for students studying these manuscripts. While the presentation is somewhat clearer on the computer-based Kindle app, I would expect the best presentation to be found in a physical book.

Encountering The Manuscripts begins with a background on manuscript production in the early Church. This chapter provides a critical basis for the remainder of the book. For example, it explains that a primary route of information transmission in the first century (and before) was oral. (This fact alone explains the text in Deuteronomy 6:4-7 instructing parents to repeat “The Lord is our God, the Lord alone” to their children continually.) Thus, believers were first presented with the oral proclamation, which was followed by written documents. Rereading the Gospels and Epistles with this in mind clarifies some of the wordings found in these writings, for example Luke 1:1-4. The first chapter also contains information as to how the writings were produced (the Apostles did not necessarily actually physically record their teachings), how they were approved by the  creator, and the presence or absence of Nomina Sacra (for example IHC for Jesus).

In subsequent chapters, there is a listing and explanation of which manuscripts (from the Greek) and printed editions (interpretations of the manuscripts) the author considers to be significant. It is here where one finds that, with few exceptions, no extant manuscripts exist. The various books of the New Testament were assembled and interpreted from fragments of manuscripts (some containing only a few words) which were found scattered across the region from Italy to Egypt. This was eye-opening to me, and revealed some of the difficulties that have been encountered in the mere act of assembling the New Testament.

A further chapter describes the history and use of the Nomina Sacra, and how various scribes and writers incorporated them into their manuscripts. The author details that some of the Nomina Sacra were quite universal, while others may have been used by only one or a few scribes. As well as scribal variants, variants also existed across time. In addition to the Nomina Sacra changing with with time, the actual Greek writing varied depending on the particular time period of the writing. These variations presented both an opportunity and a curse. The various styles of writing assisted in assigning the dates that the particular manuscript was actually produced. However, the variations in the text increased the difficulties unraveling the original wordings of the original manuscripts.

The author ends the book describing the various approaches that are taken to get at the original wording. As with most fields of inquiry, there are many approaches and, while individual investigators may favor one or another, frequently multiple approaches are needed to extract the desired information. Philip Comfort strove to present the various approaches faithfully, though he did express his opinion as to the best way to approach dating of the manuscripts and reconstructing the original documents. Being no means an expert in the field, I could only rely on the author’s insights and experience to guide me here.

In addition to his writings, the author has included pictures of the manuscripts in an effort to highlight his points, and to accentuate the difficulties faced by those studying the manuscripts. If one studied these examples, one can see pretty clearly the detail that the students of ancient text must comprehend and know in order to be effective in their task. One also has the opportunity to see what types of information is available for the study, from small fragments up to several page manuscripts. The incorporation of these images was not only invaluable to students, but they also presented the layman with challenges faced by those studying the manuscripts.

I found the book overall to be fascinating and quite informative, though somewhat dry in places. As a student, this book would seem to be a valuable resource in the study of the manuscripts. As a lay person, as I said, some parts were dry. But the book did give me an new appreciation for the mere fact that we have a Bible. It also provided much insight as to the history of information transmission and writing as it took place some 2000 years ago. One can only have respect for those who can piece together these partial jigsaw puzzles into a coherent message.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Right Where I Am Supposed To Be

God is truly amazing. He speaks to me regularly, and he uses so many different ways of getting through to me. Sometimes he speaks to me in the quiet morning hours, before I get distracted by my day. Sometimes it's through my wife. Sometimes it's music. And sometimes it's friends.

God has blessed me with many friends from high school. No, we don't hang out regularly. Or go to picnics together regularly. Or even chat on the phone regularly. We don't live in the same cities or even in the same states. But that doesn't stop the contacts, the memories, the interchange. In fact, our most regular means of communication is via the internet and social media. As many downsides as there are to social media (one could spend all day posting and reading posts, to the exclusion of everything else, if one so chose), it is great for meeting new people and for reconnecting with old friends.

Maybe you are wondering what these two paragraphs have to do with one another. Well, let me tell you. One of the prayers that I make to God every day is to let me know his will for me. What is my calling? Music? Deaconate? Back to work? Stopping everything and just be a good retired husband and father? Something I'm completely missing? I was struggling with this. Until I got a message from one of my good high school friends.

He was relating to me what was going on in his life. Hectic. Busy. Trying to get things going. Then, he said that he realized that he was right where God wants him to be. Bingo! When will I learn? I was told this by a priest friend of mine years ago – God's timing is perfect. It was not in relation to my particular calling. On the other hand, God's timing isn't perfect for just some things. It''s perfect for everything. So, I realized that God has a plan for me. (as Van Zant sings, 'if you want to hear God laugh tell him your plans'). My role in this? Keep praying. Keep trusting. Keep listening. God will tell me what to next, and when I should do it. 

The peace of Christ. One of the results of trusting in Jesus.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

God's Power Is Amazing

In my continuing efforts to grow closer to God, and to gain a better understanding of Catholicism, I have been studying the Bible. Currently I am studying Acts, the acts of the apostles. As you know, Acts describes the spread of Christianity from the original 12 apostles and 70 or so disciples to the world. It is a truly amazing recounting of the changes that took place in all of Jesus's disciples.

For example we have the original 12 apostles. Terrified. Hiding in a room. Afraid for their very lives. After all, they followed Jesus, who was crucified! But, after they received the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, they boldly went out and proclaimed the Gospel. And, they were unafraid to be confronted by the authorities, to the point of the apostles defending their own actions and calling out the authorities.

Then there is the apostle Paul. He was originally not only a non-believer of Jesus, but actively prosecuted, imprisoned, and voted for the death sentence for the believers. Again, God came to him, took away his sight, and showed him the truth about Jesus Christ. Saint Paul went on to become probably the greatest evangelist of the Gentiles that there ever was.

These two are pretty clear in the Bible. But there are other more subtle revelations that one must think about, look for or, in my case, be told. The events in chapter 10 of Acts contain one such revelation.

Chapter 10 begins describing how Cornelius, a Roman centurion and a Gentile, was instructed by God to send some men to Joppa to summon Simon Peter. In a dream, Simon Peter was instructed by God to take the message of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles. When the men sent by Cornelius requested that Peter accompany them, he agreed to go. Simon went to the house of Cornelius, ate with him, then proceeded to preach to Cornelius, his family, and others, and converted them to Christianity; in fact, the Holy Spirit descended upon the household in a manner similar to what had occurred with the disciples on Pentecost.

When I first read this, my thinking was 'This is good. Peter is spreading the Word to the Gentiles'. But, upon further reading, contemplation and instruction, it became clear to me how big this event was. Peter was a Jew, and a devout follower of Jewish law. According to Jewish law, it was forbidden for Jews to be with, and especially to eat with, Gentiles. Eating and associating with Gentiles would render Peter spiritually and ritually unclean, since the Jews following only Jewish law were not righteous enough to overcome the unrighteousness of the Gentiles. This is not like going out to dinner with your friend that supports your team's competitor. The act of eating and associating with Gentiles was against everything that the early Jews were taught to believe. 

Could you do that? If God called you, would you be able to go into the home of your adversary and preach to them? Especially if their culture was completely different from yours – if they ate foods foreign and possibly disgusting to you; if their habits were strange or even sickening? Could you? I don't know if I could. But Peter did. All because of the awesome power of God working through Peter.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Jesus Christ Is Risen!

Jesus Christ is risen!

Easter is the greatest and oldest Christian feast. It is the Feast of Feasts. And, it is the holiest day of the year for Christians. Easter celebrates the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. This is the act that is core to Christian beliefs. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (647) "it remains at the very heart of the mystery of faith as something that transcends and surpasses history".

This was an incredible event. Even the apostles did not believe what was happening. Consider this. According to the Gospel of Matthew (28:17) “When they (11 disciples) saw him, they worshiped, but they doubted.” And, in Mark (16:11) “When they heard that he was alive and had been seen by her (Mary Magdalene), they did not believe.” Luke (24:10-11) relates “The women were Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James; the others who accompanied them also told this to the apostles, but their story seemed like nonsense and they did not believe them.” Jesus had been telling the apostles for some time that he would be crucified, and would rise from the dead. Still, the apostles, those men closest to Jesus, did not understand and did not believe.

Jesus's resurrection is not the same as raising Lazarus from the dead, which can be thought of as re-animation. With Lazarus, he came back in his earthly body, to continue his life. Jesus rose from the dead as God, in his glorified body. When we are resurrected on the last day, we too will be in our glorified bodies.

The Catholic artist Matt Maher does it again with his song “Resurrection Day”. It is an uplifting, joyous song celebrating Jesus's victory over sin and death, and our freedom from sin. It celebrates the opening of the gates of heaven for all of us. It celebrates, screams even, that Jesus Christ is God. Matt captures this latter reality with the lines: “you declare what is holy, you declare what is good, in the sight of all the nations, you declare that you are God.” Declare? Again I say Jesus is pretty much shouting it from the mountain tops.

Resurrection Day. Listen. Enjoy.